On Thursday, the NHL announced that it had reached an exciting new partnership with HBO to film a reality show centered around two of the games great young teams before this year's edition of the Winter Classic.
"The fact that HBO Sports is going to use its Emmy-winning 24/7 to chronicle a month in the regular season of the NHL leading up to the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh between the Capitals and Penguins to us is an absolutely fantastic opportunities to bring hockey fans and, in fact, all sports fans an opportunity to see our players and see our game in ways that they've never been able to do it before and in ways that perhaps no fans of any sport have ever been able to do it before," said commissioner Gary Bettman on a conference call Thursday.
The 24/7 show chronicles the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals during the regular season, something that has never been done before. They plan to begin filming in mid-November, with the first episode scheduled for broadcast on Dec. 15.
This intimate content, according to HBO president Ross Greenburg, is central to the idea behind the 24/7 franchise.
"[HBO will] bring you into the team meeting rooms, into the locker rooms, the planes on chartered flights, at home, everywhere these players, coaches, assistant coaches go during this four-week stretch," said Greenburg. "That is at the heart what this 24/7 series is all about, to bring you, the viewer, access you've never been given before so you understand what it takes to be a professional athlete and compete at this high level."
With this exciting announcement in mind, let's look for 10 things we can be excited about while watching these episodes.
Heinz Field won't be the only new place the Penguins call home in 2010-11.
With the opening of the new Consol Energy Center, the fans in Pittsburgh will have a lot to learn from the behind-the-scenes filming during the 24/7 series. The gorgeous new building will undoubtedly get plenty of time on the show, and a lot of the new features that fans outside of Pittsburgh might not get access to will be on center stage.
This will be the first time the Washington Capitals have played in an outdoor game, and the Winter Classic is far from the experience the team will get playing one of the other 81 regular-season games this year.
Heinz Field is notorious for being windy, and the weather in Pittsburgh on New Year's Day could be a wild card. Add to the game conditions the walks to and from the locker rooms from the center of the football field, and this will be a chilling experience for the Caps.
Yes, this is only the fourth Winter Classic, but the Penguins have already played in one.
The Pens played the Buffalo Sabres outdoors in the first edition of the Classic, also played on a football field, and the in-game snow shower made for a memorable game that has since been followed with games at two legendary baseball stadiums, Chicago's Wrigley Field (Blackhawks-Red Wings) and Boston's Fenway Park (Bruins-Flyers).
With this game being played "at home" for the Pens, they should have the outdoor advantage.
The Capitals' captain loves life, and lives as fast as he plays (as seen on ESPN's E:60 last season). The public loves a character, and there aren't many elite athletes as charismatic as Ovechkin. His antics might not always make the people paying him happy, but his youthful excitement could become a popular feature of the 24/7 series.
One of the young stars who is often overlooked—because of the focus on Sidney Crosby—is Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury, who will turn 26 in late November, is on the very short list of rookie netminders to win the Stanley Cup, and is seen as a central figure in the Pens returning to the top this season.
However, his quiet personality may be a night-and-day contrast from that of Ovechkin. "The Flower" (his nickname) might not overwhelm viewers by driving 100 mph, but his play on the ice cannot be ignored.
To say a center that scored 101 points is in someone else's shadow could only happen in a couple places in the NHL, and Washington is one of them.
Nicklas Backstrom, 22, scored 33 goals last year and led the Caps with 68 assists while emerging as one of the great young superstars in the game today, but his more reserved approach to the ice gets lost in the bright lights surrounding Ovechkin.
As HBO chronicles these two teams leading into the Winter Classic, fans will get a better, more in-depth look at a player in Backstrom who really shoud be considered a household name just like Ovechkin.
Similarly, in Pittsburgh there are a number of young players who will catch the eye of the casual fan. Evgeni Malkin won the Conn Smythe as the postseason's most outstanding player when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup a couple years ago, and Jordan Staal will be coming back from a foot injury (hopefully) at that point.
While the two big names certainly steal most of the headlines, there are other players in both cities who will turn heads as more people see them.
When the 24/7 season jumps off on Dec. 15, it begins a tough couple weeks on the Capitals calendar that could play a role in the final standings in the Eastern Conference.
Of the Capitals eight games, six are against playoff teams from a year ago. They'll face Pittsburgh twice (including the Winter Classic) in the middle and end of a stretch in which they play the following teams:
- vs. Anaheim
- @ Boston
- @ Ottawa
- vs. New Jersey
- vs Pittsburgh
- @ Carolina
- vs. Montreal
- @ Pittsburgh (WC)
The 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner for best coach could come away from the 24/7 series with a similar cult-following to Rex Ryan of the New York Jets after this fall's Hard Knocks.
He took over a last-place team on Thanksgiving in 2007 as an interim coach and earned the top coaching honor when the Caps finished the season with a division title that same year. They haven't stopped winning since.
Boudreau is a fascinating coach, and the personality dynamic between the head coach and his players could evolve into a central theme during the show.
If someone wrote a book on how to be a good NHL franchise, the title might be "Have a high draft pick between 2003-08."
Consider the high draft picks that will play a prominent role in this year's 24/7 show:
- 2003 - #1 - Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Pittsburgh
- 2004 - #1 - Alex Ovechkin, F, Washington
- 2004 - #2 - Evgeni Malkin, C, Pittsburgh
- 2005 - #1 - Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh
- 2006 - #2 - Jordan Staal, C, Pittsburgh
- 2006 - #4 - Nicklas Backstrom, Washington
- (also note that the #3 pick in 2006, between Staal and Backstrom, was Jonathan Toews)
That's a lot of elite talent being selected where one might expect, at the top of the draft. But for these two teams to have their futures defined by the same drafts is remarkable.
Look back at the first three Winter Classic games.
- 2008: Pittsburgh at Buffalo
- 2009: Detroit at Chicago
- 2010: Philadelphia at Boston
There are three things these games have in common: the visiting team lost in the Stanley Cup Finals. Eat your hearts out, Sports Illustrated and EA Sports—this might be a bigger curse!
The Capitals have been trying to get to the Finals for three years now, and they are on the road for the Classic this year. Will the curse hold true? We'll see!